Still The Beautiful Game

“I say that I will fight for my FIFA [world soccer’s governing body]. But I will have to stop. I don’t know when I will stop. I have said it’s my last mandate. I have said it.” Such were the coy words of FIFA president Sepp Blatter several days ago, as he avoided directly answering questions on whether he would run again for the position he has occupied since 1998.

Blatter aside, few things have remained the same in the world of soccer. Its popularity, by any metric, has skyrocketed. The munificence of wealthy owners has enriched a small elite of soccer clubs mostly based in Western Europe and Russia. And, in 2022, the tiny nation of Qatar will host the World Cup, having won its bid to do so in December 2010 under intense scrutiny.

This last point, long since swept under the rug in global media, really alerts us to the paradox of soccer – that is, its popularity continues to rise in spite of the fog of corruption that surrounds it on a daily basis. Immediately following Qatar’s success, commentators around the world wondered how a nation with barely any existing (and adequate) soccer infrastructure, temperatures that rise to over 40 degrees Celsius in the summer (when the World Cup is hosted), and hardly enough host cities (from a geographical perspective, the other impending hosts of the World Cup are Brazil (2014) and Russia (2018) ) to host such an important sporting event.

These questions, however, yielded no real damage to FIFA’s long-term reputation. The furor over Qatar has broadly dissipated, with Blatter still in charge, although Mohamed Bin Hammam, the Qatari member of FIFA who led his country’s successful bid, saw his future at FIFA disintegrate amid an inquiry on corruption in 2011. It appeared at the time that part of the whole had perhaps to be sacrificed in order to appease the masses baying for FIFA’s blood.

Outside of FIFA, Blatter has, in his inimitably confused manner, negotiated debates on racism in soccer as well as match-fixing allegations in Europe’s elite soccer competition, the Champions League. His fusion of tough talk and buffoonery (where reports claimed he stated that “on-pitch racism can be resolved with a handshake”) on the racism debate, for instance, consistently casts doubts on his capacity for strong and effective leadership. Even more recently, he began his address on the subject of match-fixing by claiming that “we are in a game, and in a game there are always cheats.”

If anything, Blatter is honest. Soccer is a huge sport vulnerable to corruption on all sides, particularly in countries that will readily trade their integrity for cash. Everything points to the wheel being broken; but again, the great paradox of soccer seems to be that it appears no fixing. One only needs to look at sports like cycling and Formula 1 to see the proportionally greater damage wrought by incidents of personal or institutional corruption.

This, more than anything else, points us back to Blatter and his endemically stifling leadership at the helm of FIFA. Until its next election in 2015, the face of world soccer will be weighed down by persistent doubt over its ability to both (finally) sort out its internal affairs, as well as manage the consistent stream of problems that affect the game all over the world. It is disappointing, but broadly true, that the transgressions of FIFA will eventually recede into the background as long as soccer keeps growing in global popularity and importance. What is sure is that Blatter must not be forgotten, for he is owed his place in the history of soccer; but those looking back decades on must know that he has had it very lucky indeed.